Tuned In

New Girl, Brooklyn 9-9, and Breaking the “One Black Friend” Pattern

It's still a rarity to see a major-network sitcom in which "a black friend" is not "the black friend."

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Greg Gayne/FOX

Yesterday we learned that Damon Wayans Jr. is sticking around at New Girl for the rest of season 3 in his role as Coach. This was great news for a couple of reasons. First, as fans who’ve watched the show from the beginning will remember, he was the best thing in the pilot, before Happy Endings was renewed by ABC and took him away. And while he was replaced by the also very funny Lamorne Morris, it was a good move for the writers to explain Coach’s departure–and reference him in later episodes–rather than simply recast and reshoot the role.

But it’s also a welcome change because it makes New Girl a rarity in TV today: a major-network sitcom with more than one African American character in its regular ensemble–a comedy about friends in which “a black friend” isn’t “the black friend.”

The big networks have had a notoriously sketchy track record on casting diversity–better some seasons, terrible other seasons. The reaction has tended to be adding minority characters to shows with largely white casts. That affects the overall math, of course, but it has the side effect of replicating a universe in which black–or Asian, Latino, &c.–characters are scattered, uniformly and singly.

The actual world, of course, is more complicated. American social and work groups in real life don’t follow dutiful patterns of representation. Small social groups are not precise statistical microcosms of a population. Some are largely white, some are largely minority, and–shocker!–will have some white people and more than one person of the same minority race. Yet it’s less surprising these days to see, say, two Carys in the same law firm on The Good Wife than two black dudes who happen to be friends on a network sitcom.

This has partly been a factor of content. Traditionally, family comedies are the most likely sitcoms to have minority characters of the same race–because, well, they’re family sitcoms–but since the ’00s days of The WB, UPN, and Bernie Mac, those have become rare outside cable networks targeted at minority viewers, kids’ networks, or comedies produced by Tyler Perry. (Dramas have done somewhat better, partly because of the subject matter–more workplaces, schools, &c.–and partly because of the casting of some creatives like Shonda Rhimes.)

Which means, more and more, sitcoms’ reliance on “the black friend.” (Or, the Hispanic friend, the Asian friend…) The exceptions are scarce: Troy and Shirley on Community; Glee, if you count that as a comedy; Parks and Recreation, depending on your definition. (That is, Rashida Jones is biracial, but having seen every episode I can’t recall Ann Perkins’ ethnicity.)

Dropping in single minority characters is better than a total whitewash, at least. (Call it bean-counting if you want; the problem is that, historically, if you have no bean counting at all you eventually end up with a pot of white beans.) But the ideal would be TV that’s diverse among shows rather than within each individual show, TV that looks like life: some casts largely one race, some largely another, some of various races but with, say, a couple of Asian leads for no reason other than sometimes that happens.

HBO has had some examples of this: The Wire and Treme had highly African American casts; Big Love was very white, because, you know, Utah; shows like How to Make It in America were multicultural because their setting was. Not to say HBO’s perfect here: people might have had less issue with the whiteness of Girls–even in Brooklyn–if there were more examples of pay-cable sitcoms that weren’t so white.

Brooklyn Nine Nine

Eddy Chen/FOX

This season was no beacon of racial enlightenment on TV–I give you Dads–but there are signs of improvement in this regard anyway. New Girl’s casting may have been an accident (Wayans was available again after Happy Endings was canceled), but it’s good anyway to see two black men, in a mixed-race cast, who are friends just because. They have a history, Coach has been kind of a jerk to Winston in the past, and that’s it. (Not that the show pretends race doesn’t exist: in Wayans’ return episode, Coach had a run-in with a romantic rival who was a cop, and Winston asks if his friends have heard the one about the two black guys and two white guys who go into a police station: “The two white guys leave.”)

And on the sitcom that leads into New Girl, Brooklyn 9-9, the diversity is very conscious, not for p.c. reasons but simple realism. As its co-creators have said, it’s a New York City police show, and New York’s police department is about half minority. So you’ll see two Latina detectives who are very different personalities, because why not? You’ll see Andre Braugher and Terry Crews (who had a fantastic episode this week), sharing a subplot about Crews’ character’s annoying brother-in-law–not because they’re bonded as the precinct’s black characters, but simply because they work together, and it’s life–and, you know, in-laws, amirite?

It’s only a start, but it suggests a way for TV to reflect its audience, not just in numbers but actual circumstances. Writing in Jezebel earlier this week, Lindy West responded to the outcry over Saturday Night Live’s lack of black women case members by urging the show to hire two black women. The idea was that any single black female comic hired on the show now would face intense scrutiny and pressure, and West has a good point.

But there’s another reason: sometimes, a show should just have two black women on it, because sometimes in life, there just are two black women in the same place. (Again: or men, or Indian, or Middle Eastern, or…) TV should be diverse because of fairness, but above all because it should reflect the world. And it doesn’t just take all kinds to make the world. It takes all combinations.

10 comments
mrbomb13
mrbomb13

Oh, and one other thing - on the Time Magazine home page, the link for this story read, "TV's 'One Black Friend' Pattern Is Dead."  The subsequent article then highlights only a couple of TV shows, and then reenforces the notion of racial diversity on TV is still a rarity (like anyone besides bleeding heart-liberals actually cares).

Hardly sounds like a "dead pattern" or "trend" to me...

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

Ahh, yes...the weekly TIME Magazine "Sob Story About Racism & S**t Nobody Else Cares About."

Seriously, James Poniewozik, we live in the year 2013, and (I promise you) the general public is not griping about some perceived, "lack of diversity" on TV shows.  Want to know why?  The reason is that the Diversity of Personalities/Quirks is enough to entertain people.  Oh, and also, people are not hyper-fixated (like you obsessive-compulsive types in the media) on the number of racial/ethnically-diverse TV show characters.

After all, aren't we not supposed to judge the worth of a person or TV show on skin color?  Shouldn't we judge it on the merits instead?

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

I know this will sound racist, but the fact is, most white people don't have black friends.  They never did.  It was never normal.  Most black people will have very few white friends.  The only reason they will is because there are more whites to be friends with than there are blacks, but even then, there's not a lot of racial equality in personal relationships.  (This applies to all minorities, by the way.)

So the concept of THE Black friend (or THE Asian friend or THE Hispanic friend, THE Alien from Ork friend, etc) as depicted on television was never realistic in the first place (well, Mork's relationship may have been more realistically portrayed than most interracial sit com casts did their relationships). 

Humans tend to congregate in close relationships among those who most look like them and loosely ASSOCIATE, at best, with those who don't.  This is based on the tribal patterns imposed on our race over millennia.  It's an evolutionary trait.  We are always looking for a "tribe" to which to belong and the first thing we do is look around for people who are "like us." Most people define that with race first (which isn't always the case, but that's the exception rather than the rule).  With Whites being the majority in the U.S. (for another decade or less), those are the faces we most see on television.  But in the course of living, we do have associates and people we know and interact with who aren't "like us", and depicting that realistically on television is a welcome change.

After all, we can still choose our friends and we don't HAVE to be friends with those who aren't "like us", but we DO have to get along with each other and tolerate the differences.

I don't think anyone can deny that today's world is overtly racist.  Many Asian cultures are covertly xenophobic and all are hostile to the idea of racial integration.  European nations are showing their racist stripes as well with the influx of Muslim refugees from war-torn regions in Africa.  In Mexico, you can't become a citizen at all unless one of your parents was a citizen.  And when Americans talk about "immigration" they always means "Mexicans", and when Americans talk about "welfare" or "crime", they're ALWAYS talking about Blacks and Hispanics, even though the majority of crime and welfare recipients is done by or are Whites.

In general, Mankind is not ready for friends of a different color.

Rather than "celebrating diversity", which only throws the differences in each other's faces in the mistaken notion that if you understand someone else, you will like them, we need to focus on tolerance.  You have to crawl before you can walk, and humanity is still in the "learning to turn over on its own" stage when it comes to race.  Learning to tolerate the differences by instead focusing on the similarities between us is a good place to start.  It's how a tribe is formed - sharing the things we have in common.

Showing realistic relationships on television - even if it's a bunch of BS comedy in a sit-com - is much better than pretending we all should have friends who don't look like us.  Maybe in another few thousand years when we've raised several generations who can talk to another person and not really see a difference even if they don't look the same, it will happen.  Because one thing is certain: Assuming mankind survives the "age of communication" and the "information age" without getting a species-wide case of toxic TMI and blowing ourselves up over it, it's going to take a lot longer time than TV shows will ever last.

WalterPinkmanHyzenburrg
WalterPinkmanHyzenburrg

The real story here is how poor quality minority sitcoms/ect. on TV are; white sitcoms are bad too but has anyone actually sat down and watched an episode of House of Payne, Meet the Browns, ect?  We need better minority writers and directors.  

kneelbeforetigers
kneelbeforetigers

Time-- can we also focus that we have TWO hit shows on TV now with Black female lead characters: Scandal and Sleepy Hollow?!?!

I'd love to see a profile on Nicole Beharie from Sleepy Hollow!

Dulouz
Dulouz

Chock full of Bolshevism today huh?

jponiewozik
jponiewozik moderator

@mrbomb13 I believe the full title is "Sob Story About Racism & S**t Nobody Else Cares About, Yet Still Somehow Takes the Time to Write Two Comments On, One of Them Critiquing a Seven-Word Link On Another Page."

jponiewozik
jponiewozik moderator

@Dulouz Chock Full o' Bolshevism is my favorite Marxist-Leninist coffee. 

TheHoobie
TheHoobie

@jponiewozik I find this Bolshevism comment so hilariously mystifying in its lack of any conceivable relationship to the content of the post that I'm actually kind of in love with it. Being chock full of Bolshevism does sound really uncomfortable, though. Unless it is coffee.